If Blue Monday is a duvet day, Depression is a bare mattress, a pile of stinking sheets and a coin washer four flights down.
This is not a typical Blue Monday post with five tips for overcoming the most depressing day of the year. Because real depression is NOT a case of the Mondays. It’s a relentless case of the every-days.
Usually – but not always – solutions are a combination of approaches, including medication, diet and/or exercise. But even following your treatment plan to the letter, doesn’t prevent relapses. Some 80% of people with diagnosed depression will experience relapses.
Yoga doesn’t fix depression, but does reduce brooding.
Yoga is not a cure-all, but the practice appears to have one special weapon for fighting mental illness that other treatments don’t.
A 2013 study divided 27 women with moderately severe depression into two groups. The first took a one-hour weekly yoga class for eight weeks. The second group had weekly lectures on other health-related topics.
After eight weeks, both groups reported feeling better – possibly because any amount of self-care is good for mental health. However, the yoga group had a significant decrease in a symptom responsible for making depression more severe, longer-lasting and more likely to end in suicide: ruminating.
What is ruminating?
Rumination: repetitive negative thinking about one’s depression and life situations. (Smith & Alloy, 2009).
“One repeatedly contemplates what’s wrong in one’s life and why it is not better.” (Treynor, Gonzalez, & Nolen-Hoeksema, 2003).
The word ruminate comes from animals such as cows and sheep which need to keep re-chewing the same food to properly digest it. A person with depression chews the same thoughts over and over, without ever coming to a satisfactory conclusion.
Often the topic is the depression itself: “Why do I keep getting depressed? There must be something wrong with me. Maybe I’m lazy. That’s what my Grade 3 teacher said. Also I quit piano lessons, so I must be a natural quitter.”
Solving problems by thinking about them is a natural choice for your brain to make. But with depression, there’s no sparkling truth to discover. Your brain is stuck in a loop.
One study participant said, “For me, not thinking is a good thing. I wouldn’t be so depressed if I didn’t think so much.”
This habit can bring on depressive episodes, make a mild depression worse, and extend the length of time to recovery. Worst of all, ruminating has been associated with suicide.
Women are more likely than men to engage in obsessive self-criticism. Perhaps men react to low mood with distractions, where women feel duty-bound to get to the root of the problem.
The trouble is that no matter how deep or how consistently one digs, the root of depression never appears. Digging uncovers nothing but a deeper hole.
How yoga helps depressed people stop worrying so much
After eight weeks in the study, both the yoga and control groups’ average score on the depression scale had dropped from moderately severe to minimal. But only the yoga group showed a decrease in ruminating.
Stopping negative self-talk
The fact that yoga helped participants with obsessive thinking makes sense. Yoga’s aim, after all, is to stop us from chasing our thoughts, particularly judgemental ones. Instead, students learn to focus on a chosen subject – usually the breath or a mantra.
If you’ve experienced depression or anxiety, you know how impossible it seems to choose what you’re going to think about. It may be helpful, first of all, to label your thoughts as ruminating. Then challenge yourself to focus on your breath for a few minutes – or even a single breath!
Paying attention to your body
As well, yoga encourages students to pay attention to their bodies. How does your body feel? Where is the feeling of sadness, fear or anger located? What happens when you shift position? What happens when you adjust your breathing?
Showing concern for one’s body is pretty rare during depression. So developing a habit of noticing one’s body in detail strengthens the skill of attention AND uses up the bandwidth normally occupied by self-criticism.
Acceptance instead of judgement
Depression despairs of ever “getting it right.” But getting yoga “right” is accepting where one is currently. It’s the difference between demanding one get one’s lazy butt out of bed, and congratulating oneself on recognizing the need for rest.
One participant said, “I normally look at all the things I didn’t get done or do perfectly … but in the class I learned to focus and be pleased with just doing a little something for me.”
No final answers for depression
Nope. Yoga does not cure everything. So stick to your medication, your gym routine, your healthy diet, or whatever else it is that helps you through the bluest of Mondays. Any yoga teacher or health practitioner who advises you to ditch your treatment plan, should be thoughtfully questioned, if not ignored.
Still, this study shows that yoga is a fantastic supplement for most mental health journeys. The ability to choose what you think about is an incredibly useful skill to master! Use it when your worries get away from you. Use it when you notice yourself picking at your depression like a scab. Use it to fall asleep and get the rest you need.
Then maybe you’ll have the energy for all those Blue Monday suggestions, like focusing on the positive, taking bubble baths, or heading to spin class with a friend.
Or not. The choice is always yours.